Each individual is a unified organism. Not a mind and a body. A whole living, breathing, moving, thinking self.
Many people understand this. They believe this. And yet, in conversation I hear people continue to talk about the powers of the mind over the body and the body over the mind.
I think communicating this way is problematic. The way we speak is the way we perceive. When we speak of our mind and body we are perceiving of ourselves as having a separate mind and body. So, I think we should stop using the terms “mind” and “body” when describing our experience of being.
I provide this example:
“Body image”, a well known term.
Webster defines body image as, "a subjective picture of one's own physical appearance both by self-observation and by noting the reactions of others."
Webster's definition definitely seems in line with my community’s cultural understanding of what body image is.
Recent neuroscience contends that the part of the brain that is responsible for "body image" is the posterior parietal cortex. Located in the back right side of your brain, the posterior parietal cortex manipulates mental images and integrates sensory and motor portions of the brain.
Woah. Let’s start there. There are sensory systems which send inputs to the brain so that we know pain, so that we know where we are in relation to the other things around us, and so that we know where our arm is in relation to our leg. There is no sensory system which sends inputs to the brain about the size and look of our "body". This is a more complex process. It requires us to receive and interpret information from many different sensory systems and apply that information through other networks to come up with a composite image.
So, we know a little about what we are talking about when we say “body image” and how that thing happens. My experience of “body image” has compelled me to suggest that this term confuses this issue in how we experience ourselves.
I was bulimic for many years. When I was being treated for bulimia, all the talk about "body image" made sense. Alright, what I am seeing when I look in the mirror is faulty. But I didn't have an experience of what seeing my self outside that faulty image might be, so my understanding of a faulty "body image" was only a concept, I had no experience to fuel my understanding.
In my third year of Alexander Technique Teacher Training, I started having a new experience when looking in the mirror. Looking in the mirror, I saw what I always saw. A woman’s body, fat and getting fatter. And, I would see my self with out that association. Color and shape, eyes, belly and nose, I just saw my self. I experienced both these perceptions simultaneously.
What had changed? In this complex process of image making, had the sensory and motor inputs sent to my post parietal lobe changed? Or had something else shifted in the networks in my brain I use to interpret those sensory and motor inputs?
My guess is that something had shifted in the networks of how I see myself.
In earlier days, this was the experience of seeing myself in the mirror. I was not looking at my face. I was looking at myself from the torso down. I saw a woman’s body; fat and getting fatter. Being fat was wrong. I had to stop this body! This, of course, is ludicrous. A “body” does not magically get fatter. A person can make choices that result in them gaining weight. But this is simple cause and effect, not some nightmare of magical obesity. I was scared, I was angry with my self. This was a terrible way to be and this was what it was like to be with myself.
And there it is. The image I create of myself is a picture created out of many sensory and motor inputs filtered through my way of thinking. Previously, my way of thinking included slicing and dicing myself into separate parts with different strengths and weakness responsible to one another. My mind was responsible for keeping my body’s magical weight gain under control. And when I chose to have a cookie, I had failed. I was wrong and should be judged and punished.
As I went through my teacher training, my time was spent practicing being present with my whole experience and the world around me. I committed to communicating in a different way, no speaking about my “body” and “mind”. When I said that, what did I mean? Was I talking about how a brain receives information or how bones are organized? What was the purpose of using these words? I found little reason to use these words because when I talk about the experience of being human I am always talking about a unified experience (because it is a unified experience!)
I feel fortunate that I had the opportunity to experience these two differing perspectives simultaneously. It has informed my understanding of how integral our understanding of self is to our experience of self. The image I or anyone sees when they look in a mirror or simply see themselves in their mind is a picture created from many sensory and motor inputs interpreted through their understanding of what it is to be human. To say “body image” suggests that this picture is just about an unassociated corporal form. But, it is a picture of our identity. When we continue to use the term “body image” we reinforce the idea that we have an unassociated corporal form. We don’t. Let’s call it what it is, our self image.
That seems incredibly simple and maybe not worth the argument. But I believe that the more our vernacular supports reality the more likely we will be able to see reality simply. And I am all for simplicity, especially when approaching things that are as complex as reality and my relationship with myself.